By Dr. Mercola
Dealing with the loss of my mom, who died this past July, I have a new appreciation for those who experience intensified feelings of grief and loss during the holiday season. Grief is a valuable feeling but can be an “emotional rollercoaster.” Given its ebb and flow, it can be hard to know how to embrace, process and express feelings of grief, especially during the holidays.
The most important resource to help me resolve the grief with my mother was the last book that Dr. David Hawkins wrote before he passed, “Letting Go: The Pathway to Surrender.” He teaches a simple yet profoundly effective strategy that helps you fully experience your feelings until they morph and change. This was one of the best books I read this year.
If your heart is heavy this Christmas, while the “rest of the world” seems to be experiencing a time of joyous celebration, you are not alone. Everyone deals with grief and loss at some time in their lives, and many more are actively suffering than you may realize. Thankfully, there are numerous tips and tools to help you cope and get through this sensitive time in ways that honor you and your deceased loved one.
Why Do Holidays Compound Our Sense of Grief?
No matter how much time has passed since the death of a loved one or how much emotional healing has taken place, something about the holidays tends to bring feelings of grief and loss rushing to the surface all over again. Intense feelings of grief can cause you to view the holiday season with dread. You may come to see it as something to “get through,” rather than a series of occasions to be celebrated and enjoyed.
While some view the winter holidays as the most wonderful time of the year — especially as it relates to the many festivities enjoyed together with family and friends — after a loss, these occasions are not only less wonderful, but can also be stressful and depressing.
Emotions run high, especially the first year immediately after the death of your loved one. While you may feel better equipped to deal with the emotions in subsequent years, some aspect of the grief will undoubtedly linger. As such, the holidays may always be difficult to some degree without the presence of that special person.
Dr. Anthony Komaroff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, practicing senior physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and editor-in-chief of the Harvard Health Letter, who experienced the loss of his father one month before the holidays, knows firsthand how difficult it can be to celebrate the holidays while grieving the loss of someone dear. He states:1
“Family and togetherness are key themes for the holidays. That can make the holidays awfully difficult for people who are grieving the loss of a loved one … Although grief is nearly universal, it expresses itself in many different ways … Frequent crying spells, depressed mood, sleep disturbances and loss of appetite …
Grief is not a tidy, orderly process, and there is no right way to grieve. Every person — and every family — does it differently. This can cause emotions to collide and overlap, especially during the holiday season …”
Writing for the Huffington Post, Rhonda O’Neill, author, grief survivor and pediatric registered nurse, who has successfully navigated a number of holiday seasons while grieving the deaths of her husband and a son, writes:2
“Society sends us the message that we are supposed to be joyful and that the holidays are a time for celebration and connecting with people we love … We are required to show up to family gatherings, with a vital part of our family missing, and pretend that we are fine. We are not fine.
The reminder of our loss is never as obvious as when we are surrounded by our extended family and friends, [because] their [families] are whole and together. Our family has an obvious vacant spot and will never be whole without our missing loved one … [T]he holidays will never be the same again without them there by our side.”
Tips on Dealing With Grief During the Holidays
Because feelings of grief and loss tend to be intensified during the holidays, it’s important you mentally prepare yourself beforehand. By being aware the holidays will likely trigger heavy emotions, you can take steps to care for your tender heart as you go through them. O’Neill offers the following suggestions for grieving during this festive time of year:3
Be gentle with yourself
Rule No. 1 for dealing with grief during the holidays is be gentle with yourself. You may not get as much accomplished as you’d like. You may not be able to cook, entertain or shop. Go slow. Be kind to yourself. Lower your expectations. You are in pain and most of your energy is needed to deal with the grief.
Listen to your body and your emotions
Trying to ignore your body and your emotions during the holidays seldom works. To get your attention, your body may simply shut down, making you physically ill. This can happen even if your issues are mainly emotional in nature. Rather than battle an illness during the holidays, make time throughout the season to check in with your body and engage with your emotions.
Seek out activities and people that lift your spirits
When dealing with grief during the holidays it is especially important to choose activities and people that will enliven your mood and lift your spirits. The last thing you want to do is apply your limited emotional and physical energy to activities and people that will further drain you or add to your emotional pain.
Avoid the tendency to isolate
Hiding away is a common tendency for people who are experiencing grief, sadness and loss. It’s scary to be around others because you never know what people may say in response to your grief. While it’s somewhat risky to be social, loneliness is worse, and you need human contact and emotional support. Even short visits with safe, emotionally-healthy family and friends are better than no visits at all.
Don’t overextend emotionally or physically
As a grieving person going through the holidays, you will probably notice you don’t have as much emotional and physical energy as usual. This is normal and OK. You don’t have as much to give others right now, and it’s perfectly acceptable for you to be on the receiving end for a time.
Set some boundaries around how much you’ll do, whether it be cooking, entertaining or shopping. Be realistic and don’t be afraid to turn down invitations and offers, even at the last minute.
Learn to say no
“No” is a powerful word that can help you set limits around what you will and will not do as you go through the holidays. Unfortunately, some family members and friends will not receive this word very well, but that is not your problem. You are not responsible for what other people think or feel about your limits. Your goal is to take care of yourself and to move through the holidays as best as you can. Saying no can help.
Talk about how you’re feeling
Especially at the holidays, you will benefit from having a counselor, friend, pastor or support group to talk to about how you’re feeling. In the absence of a caring person, you can most certainly record your thoughts in a journal. Talking and journaling can help you work through intense feelings. These activities take swirling thoughts out of your head and provide emotional relief when you are feeling overwhelmed.
Consider volunteering or helping someone in need
One of the best remedies for taking a temporary break from intense feelings is to put your focus on serving or helping someone else. Volunteer opportunities abound during the holidays. You can take a break from heavy emotions by serving at a soup kitchen, helping at a homeless shelter or supporting a church, community or school event.
Reflect on the holidays you shared with your deceased loved one
One way to honor the memory of special people in your life is to remember them during the holidays. What role did they assume during times of celebration? What were his/her favorite aspects of the celebration? What memories do you have of them at this time of year? You may want to get out photos, letters and other items that remind you of him/her. Playing music or serving food your loved one enjoyed are other ways to honor them.
Creating New Rituals Can Help You Honor a Loved One
While some aspects of the holidays are changed forever due to the absence of your loved one, you can remember and honor them by creating new rituals focused on them.4,5 Some families remember a deceased loved one simply by maintaining an empty chair at the table during a holiday meal. Others place a photo in a special location and surround it with holiday decorations, a memorial candle or other memory-evoking adornments.
If your loved one made a special dish for your holiday gathering, you might want to get the recipe and make it in remembrance of him or her. Perhaps your deceased family member or friend was an avid holiday volunteer. If so, consider participating in a charitable event or service project as a way of honoring them. If you are unable to serve, consider sending a monetary gift to a favorite charity in recognition of them.
EFT Can Help You Cope With Grief and Stress During the Holidays
The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a useful tool you can use to help you cope with feelings of grief and loss during the holidays. EFT is an energy psychology method designed to help you process emotions and reprogram your body’s reactions related to them. As a kind of do-it-yourself form of emotional acupuncture, EFT stimulates your body’s energy meridians as you lightly tap on key points. EFT is an effective means of releasing trapped emotions and the mental and physical pain associated with them.
In the video above, Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to use EFT for grief. Even if you have never used EFT before, take a few minutes to learn the technique and then use it whenever grief surfaces. What I love about EFT is that you can apply it to virtually every type of emotion. If you find yourself having trouble coping at a holiday event or meal, step into a private area and tap. You’ll be surprised at how quickly EFT can knock down the intensity of your feelings and help you effectively deal with holiday stress.
Stress Management: An Essential Part of Your Holiday Plan
Besides creating new rituals and using EFT, there are a number of other stress-management strategies you can employ as you navigate the holidays. A few of the most important ones are:
- Eating a healthy diet: Avoiding alcohol, processed foods and sugary treats will go a long way in helping you feel good during the holidays. While you may think it’s OK to “live a little” during this festive time of the year, you will most likely regret the extra weight, depressed mood and other ill effects that will result if you overindulge. A far wiser approach would be to incorporate organic fruits and vegetables, grass fed meats, healthy fats, fermented foods and a high-quality probiotic supplement in your daily diet.
- Getting daily exercise: Studies have shown tranquilizing chemicals called endorphins are released in your brain during exercise. As such, daily exercise is a natural way to bring your body pleasurable relaxation year-round. During the holidays, exercise is even more vital to your well-being because it is a great stress reliever.
- Sleeping enough: Failing to get enough high-quality, restorative sleep can damage your health even if your diet and exercise programs are stellar. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and you will need even more during the holiday season, especially if you are grieving. If you want help in this area, check out my 33 tips to help improve your sleep.
- Spending time in reflection, meditation or prayer: For many, the holidays are a spiritually-oriented time involving reflection, meditation and/or prayer. When practiced regularly, these activities are natural stress busters. They are also helpful in addressing feelings of grief and loss.
- Taking supplements to cope with holiday stress: There is no doubt the holidays can be stressful. Seven supplements that help fight the holiday stress are ashwagandha, L-theanine, lavender oil, magnesium, potassium and vitamins B12 and D3. If you can only take one, I suggest vitamin D3 because it has the greatest potential to boost your energy and resiliency year-round, and most particularly during the winter holidays.
I know from personal experience that dealing with grief and loss is a challenge regardless of the time of year the feelings arise. Given the focus on relationships and togetherness, there is something unique about the holidays that makes these feelings more intense.
Regardless of how you spend Christmas or ring in the New Year, you owe it to yourself to take action to safeguard your heart and your emotions this holiday season. Choose one or more of the tips above and apply them as best you can. In doing so, you will be able to move through the holidays connected to yourself and, equally importantly, connected to the warm feelings and positive memories you have about your loved one.